Japanese Umbrella Pine Trees

A Japanese umbrella pine tree in a foundation bed
David Beaulieu

Taxonomy and Botany of Japanese Umbrella Pine Trees

Japanese umbrella pine trees are classified as Sciadopitys verticillata in plant taxonomy. Specific cultivars do exist (see below), but the intent behind the present article is to offer facts about the species plant, primarily.

This conifer is a needled evergreen, botanically speaking.

If you are versed in the scientific names of plants at all, then you may realize that Sciadopitys verticillata is not a true pine, despite its common plant name. True pines have Pinus in their botanical names: for example, botanists call the eastern white pine Pinus strobus. To read about other examples, see:

Plant Characteristics

As trees go, this will be a small one in your landscaping for quite some time, assuming you buy a young sapling. It is a slow grower. So even though it may eventually attain a height of 25-30 feet (although it grows considerably taller in its native habitat) with a spread of about 15-20 feet, expect it to remain a much smaller specimen for many years.

As it starts to get taller, it will assume a form that is pyramidal or "narrowly conical." How narrow a form, precisely, it does assume will depend on a number of factors, including whether or not you allow multiple trunks to form and whether you prune. Long-lived, it may outlive you and may put on much of its eventual height only during the life of the next homeowner, who takes over from you.

The needles are thick, dark green and glossy. They can attain a length of about 5 inches. Their color may change somewhat in winter; mine acquire a little bit of yellow in them but remain attractive.

Just as the tree is a slow grower, so it will be slow to produce cones. If and when they do come, they will be 2-4 inches in length. On older trees, the bark will be reddish-brown and will peel. This so-called "exfoliating" bark can add to the display, given adequate visibility.

Planting Zones, Sun and Soil Requirements

Japanese umbrella pine trees are indigenous to Japan. According to PlantExplorers.com, it is "one of the five sacred trees from Japan's Kiso forest." In terms of the USDA map, they grow best in planting zones 5-8.

The growing recommendations for this tree are full sun and an evenly moist but well-drained soil. A loamy soil enriched with humus is probably the ideal. Regarding soil pH, it should be on the acidic side.

Uses in the Yard

Japanese umbrella pine trees are chiefly used as specimen plants. While they function well in that role year-round, they are especially effective when deciduous trees are bare; that is, as is often the case with evergreens, they are most appreciated for the visual interest in winter that they afford.

Given their origin, the plants are also valued by aficionados of Japanese gardens, both for landscaping purposes and to create bonsai.

Care, Cultivars

These novel specimens cannot be relied upon to withstand drought successfully, nor are they especially cold-hardy. This confines them to a somewhat tighter range than most trees. Japanese umbrella pines remind me of golden chain trees in this sense: they do not want it too hot, but they do not want it too cold, either.

What does this mean regarding care? Well, first of all, at the warmer end of their range, make sure that they are well watered; you may even wish to give them a little afternoon shade. At the cooler extreme of their range, they may suffer winter burn, so locate them in sheltered locations (where they will not be exposed to the worst of the winds) or consider providing them with winter protection via a shelter or by wrapping in burlap. Regarding such winter protection, however, there are two drawbacks:

  1. You obscure the view, thereby robbing the plant of winter interest
  2. It will work only while the tree is still short since covering taller specimens will not be feasible

Some cultivars of note include:

  • 'Aurea'
  • 'Variegata'
  • 'Pendula'

If you are a student of cultivar names, you can probably guess what traits these cultivars feature. 'Aurea' has golden foliage, while the leaves of 'Variegata' are variegated. Meanwhile, 'Pendula' can be counted among the weeping trees.

Origin of the Names

The specific epithet, verticillata in the botanical name, Sciadopitys verticillata means "whorled," referring to the arrangement of its needles. That same arrangement gives the plant its common name. The whorls of needles reminded the plant's namer of the ribs on an umbrella. Verticillata is found in various other plant names, including Ilex verticillata which is the holly commonly named "winterberry."

Sciadopitys verticillata is different from the Italian umbrella pine (Pinus pinea). If you remember their respective botanical names, you will never confuse them: the latter's name has "pine" written all over it, as it were, while the former, as indicated above, is not a true pine at all.

Outstanding Feature 

Although the form or "habit" (see above) can be exquisite, especially when a Japanese umbrella pine becomes columnar, the chief quality that draws people to these trees is the needles. Specifically, their sheen is so pronounced that they have been described as "plastic-looking." That is usually a demerit, but in this case, it is high praise.

That invitee to your landscaping who is unfamiliar with the plant and asks if it is plastic need only be brought over to your Japanese umbrella pine for a feel. Touching this unusual plant—a pleasurable experience in itself, by the way—will immediately confirm that, yes, it is "real," and the revelation will bring joy both to you and your skeptical visitor. Incidentally, another plant that will routinely confound your neighbors is 'Arctic Beauty' kiwi vine.

Fun Facts

Like Ginkgo biloba trees, these evergreens are among the oldest trees in the world. In fact, they date back to prehistoric times. Perhaps that is why the tree is so lonely: it has outlived its kin. Let me explain:

When we research a plant's botanical classification, we usually encounter an extensive "family tree," if you will. Starting from the more general and working our way down to the more specific, we have the kingdom, division, class, order, family, genus, and species. For our purposes in landscaping, it usually suffices to begin with family. Typically, a plant family will be an enormous grouping of disparate plants, containing multiple genera, each of which, in turn, encompasses numerous species. But Japanese umbrella pine trees buck convention in this regard.

  • You see, these prehistoric relics are the sole species within their genus. Not only that but the genus, Sciadopitys is entirely alone within its family, namely, Sciadopityaceae. When this tree arrives at a family reunion, it can stuff itself on the goodies to its heart's content, because its close relatives are not going to show up —they do not exist, at least not anymore.